Interfaith Activist to NWU Students: Never Cede Religious Language

Eboo Patel described a conflict at a Grand Island, Neb., meatpacking plant to his seminary students in Chicago. To end its reliance on illegal immigrants for labor, the plant recruited legal Somali refugees.

The Somalis, who came to Grand Island from Minnesota, needed accommodations. There were prayer schedules and Muslim holidays to mark. As Muslims, they couldn’t handle pork products. They also needed to be dismissed early during the month of Ramadan—an accommodation requiring the plant to stop early, and the entire staff to take a 15-minute pay cut.

The plant’s Christians railed against what they called special treatment for Muslims, and 1,000 workers walked off the job.

Patel asked his seminarians to imagine they were pastors in Grand Island. Imagine a reporter calling to ask for comment. What would they say?

The future pastors grappled with complex economic, legal and Constitutional issues. Not one of them mentioned scripture or Jesus.

The question is how to have a vertical relationship with one’s own understanding of the divine, and a horizontal relationship with the diversity of the world.

That led the Interfaith Youth Corps founder to describe another scenario involving interfaith conflict: a grisly 2005 murder in Jersey City, N.J. When a family of Egyptian Christians was killed, the city’s Egyptian Christians turned away from their Egyptian Muslim neighbors.

Patel saw a similar rhetorical dynamic in this instance. “The faith leaders willing to use religious language were the ones framing the situation as Christians versus Muslims.” These leaders held press conferences on church steps and called the unsolved crime “a Muslim execution.”

Meanwhile, residents calling for unity disavowed religious language. “We don’t put religion in our friendship at all,” said one Jersey City high school student—a Christian who refused to turn away from Muslim friends.

These residents, Patel argued, missed a valuable opportunity. “Religious language resonates with a lot of people,” he told an audience gathered to hear NWU’s 2011 Senator Carl T. Curtis and Mildred M. Curtis Lecture on Public Leadership. “And if those of us who have a vision of a diverse community living a common life together don’t articulate that vision using religious language, we simply forfeit the cross, the Bible, the example of Jesus… to those who are willing to use or abuse them.”

He said, “It’s easier to just talk about being nice than it is to talk about being Christian,” during moments of interfaith crisis. Patel, who is Muslim, called this position “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”

Some may argue there’s nothing wrong with that. A friend of Patel’s called it “religion minus the dogma.” To Patel, it’s “religion minus the religion.”

He said, “The question is how to have a vertical relationship with one’s own understanding of the divine, and a horizontal relationship with the diversity of the world.” A relationship in one direction needn’t dilute a relationship in the other.

To the student who says, “I’m friends with a Muslim even though I’m Christian,” Patel recommends a simple reconfiguration: “Because I am Christian, I have formed a friendship with a Muslim.” It allows the connection between people to remain strong without weakening the connection to their faiths.

The Curtis Lecture on Public Leadership was founded by Mildred Curtis in 2005.

Watch Patel’s lecture. Select On Demand tab and "Raj Patel: Stuffed and Starved."